Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Lesson of the Three Mints

As you know, I recently turned 40. I had a lovely birthday and received many well wishes and gifts. One of the things I love most about celebrating birthdays in South Africa is the emphasis on relationships over gifts. People phone, sms and stop by all day to wish you a happy day and celebrate with you, whereas in the U.S., people give gifts. I confess (while my cheeks turn red from embarrassment) that when I first moved here, I was disappointed when I didn't receive any gifts. Over the past five years, however, I have come to cherish the love of friends and "family" here, who go out of their way to let me know I am special to them. Their kind words and time spent with me are more of a gift than any material object!

I did receive one tangible gift, however, that touched me profoundly. My friend Agnes gave me three, individually wrapped mints. This might not seem like much to you, but when you understand that Agnes can't even afford toilet paper, the gift takes on a whole new meaning. Agnes gave what little she had for me. I would have willingly given them back and let her keep what little she had, but it was a joy for Agnes to give what she could. I am usually the one who gives things to Agnes, but it was important for her to know that I need her just as much as she needs me, and that she has just as much to give to me as I have to give to her. She needed me to treat her with dignity by accepting her small gift, which as it turns out, was the biggest gift I think I ever received.

Agnes taught me a lesson, touched me profoundly, and made turning 40 the most beautiful, humbling birthday ever.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

I May Not Be Karen Blixen, But...

The book Out of Africa by Karen Blixen begins with the line, "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." If I wrote a book, it would begin with the line, "I turned 40 in Africa, at the foot of the Magaliesberg Range."

Tomorrow is my 40th birthday. I never imagined turning 40; it sounded so old! I also never imagined that I would live in Africa. But here I am - on both accounts - and I can honestly say that while the thought of turning 40 doesn't please me too terribly much, if I have to turn 40 there's no place I'd rather be than here in South Africa.

The emphasis on relationships over tasks or possessions, the sound of the birds in the morning before the sun rises, the inconvenience of strikes that halt public services for weeks at a time, the bougainvillea vines, the potholes, the summer thunderstorms, the too-many funerals, the beautiful singing... It is a package deal. I must take the good with the bad, emphasize the good and learn to make peace with the not-so-good.

It's the same with turning 40: looking older than I feel, knowing who I am and where I'm going, no longer being able to compete with 18-year-olds, having a bit more wisdom and experience, the joys of watching children grow up, still acting like a kid with my husband, feeling confident and free... It's a package deal. I must take the good with the bad.

I turned 40 in Africa, at the foot of the Magaliesberg Range, and I am blessed beyond imagination.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Grace for Growing Up

Red Bishops are among my favourite birds. They are stunningly beautiful, and when they appear in the neighbourhood I know that summer is around the corner. They look like this:

But in their juvenile state, when they are shedding their baby feathers and gaining their adult feathers, they look like this:

A bit pathetic, aren't they? I saw a juvenile Red Bishop today on my street, and as I was wondering whether birds could feel embarrassment or not, it suddenly dawned on me: I am just like that bird. There are aspects of my life in which I still have my baby feathers, parts where I have gloriously emerged as an adult, and parts where I'm still in process. Those in between parts are messy, awkward, and sometimes ugly.

I took it a step further. If there are parts of my life that are in the process of "growing up", then there are likely aspects of other people's lives that are in process. If that is so, how much grace do I give them to be in their "ugly" phase? Can I see them not as they are, but as they will be? Can I endure the present messiness in anticipation of the revealed beauty? If I expect that kind of grace for myself then I have to extend it to others.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Story of the Two Fires

Yesterday I was feeling discouraged. My son told me this story in response -
"Once there were two fires. They had lots of flame childen, but there were three that they couldn't keep and had to pass on - Hope, Encouragement and Love. They chose two people to pass on their flames to - you, and some random person whom I do not know. They gave Hope and Encouragement to you, and love to the random person.
"The flame of Encouragement you used to not feel discouraged, and the Hope you shared with the world. You shared the encouragement, too, when you didn't need it any more. The End."
Every now and then, my son surprises me in completely unexpected ways. I like his story, and wanted to pass on the flames of Encouragement and Hope to you (perhaps you already have the flame of Love!).

Monday, October 15, 2012

It's Not as Easy as A, B, C

I think the hardest thing about moving to South Africa has been getting used to the education system. Education is so important to me, and the system here is so different from the one in the States (not better or worse... just different). I made it a priority to help my kids navigate the school system. I also committed to learn and be as supportive as I can. There are things I loved about the schools here, and things that frustrate me. At times I am thrilled to be educating my children outside of the United States, and at other times I wonder if I've ruined them for life. But this year... this year it became personal.

I went back to school this year to pursue a new field of study. All those feelings I felt for my kids - all those things I thought I had successfully navigated - came surging back in a tidal wave of confusion, frustration and perplexity. How does the grading system work? What does it take to get positive feedback on your assignments, or does that go against the philosophy here? If so, how does one deal with that?

I don't regret our move to South Africa, and I want to reiterate that I don't have a complaint with the system here; I just don't understood it (yet). Right now I feel like I'm back to square one. The good news is, if I figured it out with my kids in four years, in three years I should feel pretty good about my own schooling!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

One of Those Days

If you are American, the first thing you will learn in moving to South Africa is that South Africa is not America (or any other nation, for that matter). This is a good thing. It can also, at times, be a very frustrating thing.

Yesterday I went to the Post Office to mail a parcel. I am used to long queues; that's just part of life here. I was not prepared for the signs all over the Post Office saying "Due to our new system, services will be slower." Aren't new systems generally supposed to be faster (unless, of course, we're talking about airport security)? When I finally got to the counter I was told, "No incoming or outgoing parcels until the strike is over." I sort of wish they had had a sign indicating as much, to save me the long wait. Or is this the "new system"? Hey, it really IS slower!

I next went to the grocery store. When I got to the till (and only after the employee had scanned all of my items and I had given her cash) the employee said, "I don't have change; I can't help you."

My final errand was to the chemist. I stood in another long queue. Every time the queue inched forward the woman behind me would step on my shoes. She wasn't trying to annoy me; she just comes from a culture where the definition of "personal space" is quite different from mine.

I confess, I wanted to complain. I almost phoned Dan to tell him I was having an "I'm not coping with life in South Africa" day, but then it dawned on me: I like it here. I don't enjoy long queues or inefficiency, but I am learning to smile about it, make the best of it, and move on with my day because the truth is, there is more to love and embrace than to find fault with.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Lightness of Hope

“I know the weight of this world can take you down like gravity . . . but hold on, and he’ll break open the skies to save those who cry out his name.” – Tenth Avenue North

"This year, our church did something extra special for the annual spring celebration. Thousands of biodegradable balloons were pumped with helium, and every member of the congregation wrote a small message of hope and tied it to the string of their balloon. When our pastor gave the word, we released the balloons into the sky, and we prayed once the balloons lost their height someone might be encouraged by the message. I wondered about my lime-green balloon, and the little message tied to the string. Maybe it would only end up in the dry brush and stay there for years. Maybe someone would throw it away without noticing the message, but perhaps they would look first. Would it touch them? Is it the right message for them? I hoped God would direct the balloon to the right person, and that they might be encouraged, or even come to know God if they didn’t already. Then it occurred to me to pray for this person. I don’t know their name, gender, or age, but I prayed that they would be inspired and touched by God. I even prayed for their situation, whatever it may be, and hoped they would feel as light as the balloon they found." - Emma


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Teenager's Perspective on Saying Good-Bye

"When you’re a missionary kid, those last days you spend with friends are always treasured in the most special way. It’s as if the internal camera starts from the moment you reunite and until the goodbyes are said, every moment is captured in your mind forever. Those times of reunion are the happiest memories I have to this day. All the pain of the separation seems to disappear and you just click, like nothing ever happened. New happy, silly memories are created, from having a ball gown barbecue to just sitting on the back end of the car eating ice cream. Although the memories are happy, for me they’re always bittersweet, tainted by the goodbyes and silent longing. It almost annoys me, in a way. Why do I have to look back and feel pain? Could I live in those moments forever, please, God? Are there any good memories we possess without some measure of pain in it? But I realized I was looking at things with the wrong attitude. I should cherish the memory instead of push it away. Look back on it with fondness instead of bitterness. And above all I should be thankful that I had the memories at all." - Emma

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Different Kinds of Beauty

The sun comes out and shines so bright, then disappears again at night. It’s just another ordinary miracle today. –Sarah Mclachlan

"When I picture beauty, I usually think of the ocean, or the streets full of the red and orange leaves of autumn. Beauty is a definite term, and is definitely not applied to this country’s dry fields of grass. Going on a hike with some friends will not be beautiful, but work, and nothing more. In South Africa, being surrounded by mountains, it’s pretty much impossible to get a hike that doesn’t involve walking up steep, winding paths littered with loose rocks. At first, it was exactly that, and I internally berated myself for agreeing to this hike. Then the path leveled out, and suddenly it didn’t seem so exhausting or dizzying. It was late afternoon, and the sun had just started to sink lower in the sky, casting red light over the scenes before us. Although I’d never really appreciated the savannah I saw every day, I could start to see the beauty of it now. I saw so many contrasting scenes - the little purple flowers growing amidst the yellow grass, and the freeway against the mountains. We took pictures of the sable antelope meters away from us, and then turned our cameras to the air show happening above us, the planes flying in perfect formation. I’d never looked at the bushveld in this way, beautiful and teeming with life. It made me realize there are different kinds of beauty in this world, some obvious and some less obvious. All you have to do is open your eyes and look for it in the most dead of places. When I look for the ordinary yet extraordinary miracles of life, I see God’s fingerprints in ever blade of grass I find." - Emma


Monday, October 1, 2012

A 14-Year-Old's Perspective

I asked my oldest daughter if she would be a guest writer for this week. She was gracious enough to agree. Emma was nine when we moved to South Africa, and in some ways I think the move was hardest on her. She left her best friend behind and had no choice but to follow her parents to a country she wasn't particularly keen on visiting.

People say that having a teenager is hard work, and I suppose that's true, but I also think it's just as hard for the teenager as it is for the parent! Truth be told, I think I learn as much from my daughter as she might learn from me. Her writing is thoughtful and evocative, so without further ado, here's Emma:

"When I was a little kid, everything was so simple. So simple, in fact, that I have to wonder if I haven’t dreamed up my own childhood. Living without any complications in life can’t be real; it’s too good of a deal to be true. It almost seems like the innocence of childhood is for others to enjoy, since you were either too young to remember or wishing you could grow up faster. Why were we in such a hurry to grow up, anyway? It never turned out the way we wanted as a child. Those dreams of being free and calling your own shots, eating ice cream every meal and having friends live with you seem so far away and impossible now. But, even so, sometimes I feel like a five-year-old again. Those days of messing around and just being plain silly are so much fun, and I wonder if we haven’t lost that child we used to be. There are days when that little kid peeks through the concept we’ve built of growing up, and certain things don’t seem so childish anymore. I love the innocent faith of a child in their parents and the world, and I wish the older generations could learn more from them."